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Two distinct views of St. Petersburg mark District 7 council race

Incumbent Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and challenger Eritha "Akile'' Cainion disagree widely on most issues.
District 7 City Council candidates Eritha "Akile" Cainion, left, and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman
District 7 City Council candidates Eritha "Akile" Cainion, left, and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman [ Scott Keeler and Chris Urso | Times ]
Published Oct. 10, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The candidates running for the District 7 City Council seat have radically different views of the city.

Incumbent Lisa Wheeler-Bowman wants to continue the progress she said she and her fellow council members have made.

What’s the race about for her?

“Re-electing a strong leader, a person who loves what she does, being the City Council member representing District 7 and the entire city," Wheeler-Bowman, 51, said, "and I want to continue the work that we have started on council.”

Eritha “Akile” Cainion offers a different version of the city, one in which developers monopolize power, where gentrification is infringing on the black community and black voters are disenfranchised by a racist electoral process.

“I think this election is between the past and the future, it’s the system versus the people," said Cainion, 22. "Where the black community and subsequently the average worker in this community are experiencing the attacks from a system that is solely bent on developing at our expense.”

The two advanced from the Aug. 27 primary, defeating two other candidates. Wheeler-Bowman received about 57 percent of the votes, while Cainion earned about 24 percent. The district is south and west of downtown, adjacent to Gulfport. The candidates face off in a citywide general election on Nov. 5.

The other council races:

Disagreements in St. Pete City Council race stray from the issues

St. Petersburg District 5 candidates offer similar views on city

Incumbent’s record focus of St. Petersburg District 3 race

Wheeler-Bowman became politically active after her son was murdered in 2008. She was the president of her neighborhood association and later became the president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations before winning her seat on City Council in 2015.

Her priorities mirror those of candidates running for City Council in the other districts: addressing the need for affordable housing, ensuring public safety and improving transportation.

She touts the accomplishments of her first term, including a commitment to spend $15 million of Penny for Pinellas funds over the next 10 years to buy land that can be turned over to developers to build affordable housing. She also supports a plan released over the summer by Mayor Rick Kriseman, his "For All, From All” affordable housing plan, which commits $60 million over the next 10 years to create and preserve 2,400 units of affordable homes.

“There’s no mistaking that we need something done immediately" on affordable housing, she said. “So we have to do this push to make sure we have housing, because our city is growing, fast. So there’s no more waiting. The time is now.”

She said she wants to ensure the relationship between the St. Petersburg Police Department and the residents of her district continues to improve. She credited Chief Tony Holloway’s “park, walk and talk” strategy, which encourages officers to get out of their cars and walk the beat, with bridging a divide.

Wheeler-Bowman initially said she would defer to officers’ wishes on body-worn cameras, which the police department has said it is reviewing. She expressed concerns about privacy, specifically in domestic situations. She ultimately said she was supportive of the technology, which captures interactions from the officer’s perspective.

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Additionally, the council member said she would like to see the buses run more frequently and for there to be a regional transportation strategy.

On the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, Wheeler-Bowman said she would like the team to remain in St. Petersburg, and said she isn’t sure if she would vote to dedicate public funding to helping the team build a new stadium for a split season. In June, the team announced it wants to explore playing half seasons in the Tampa Bay area and half seasons in Montreal. She said the Tropicana Field site would still be a good place for a new stadium if development — in the form of affordable housing, business, retail, restaurants — sprouts around it.

She said no matter what goes there, it should be "something that everyone feels comfortable going there and spending their money, so it can’t be out-priced.”

She has proposed creating a “community benefit agreement,” by which some profits brought in from the development of the 85 acres underneath the Trop would be reinvested in the city’s poorest communities. She said she does not have a specific amount in mind yet.

The 85 acres underneath the Trop take on a different significance to Cainion, who touts the most radical platform of anyone running for council. Her goal is to represent what she says is the voice and will of the black community. That includes achieving reparations, primarily through the Trop site, which Cainion describes as being “stolen” from the black community that once lived there.

Her idea with that land is to create a city agency called the “Reparations Land Trust and Development Authority,” which would regulate the development of city-owned land within a rectangle on the city’s south side that runs from Central Avenue to 54th Avenue S, from Third Street to 49th Street. The two primary parcels Cainion said the authority would regulate are the Trop site — which she said should include affordable housing and business opportunities for the black community — and Commerce Park, a swath of city land along 22nd Street S across from the Manhattan Casino that currently sits empty, despite promises of ambitious development.

“Reparations is money, but it’s also land. It’s a restoration of what has been stolen from the black community,” said Cainion, a member of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement who ran unsuccessfully for District 6 in 2017. “Creating a vibrant black community will contribute to the overall tax base of this city.”

The development authority would have a board elected by residents who live within the authority’s jurisdiction. She said she will roll out more information about the authority in the future.

She’s also against public money being spent on a stadium.

“I’m not for trying to find money to make it more enticing for the Rays to stay here when we should be looking for the money to make this place affordable for the residents who already live here,” she said.

She also wants to alter the way elections are done in the city. She said the process by which council members are elected is “anti-black,” in that it allows the city’s majority-white population to overrule the will of black voters.

“Can a candidate really fighting for the black community win an election in St. Petersburg?” Cainion asked, rhetorically. “It totally undermines the people who vote in that district.”

She acknowledged that all candidates must first face district voters and then city voters, "but it really impacts people like me, who are running on a platform specifically speaking to the black community.”

Cainion has also called for the end of what she calls “occupation” of the black community through "black community control of the police.'' She said body cameras are not a solution, since there is already video of police brutality.

She also rails against developers, who she said are driving gentrification and the affordable housing crisis. She said as development creeps south, it drives up home and rent prices.

'We want development to be able to occur," she said, “but it cannot be at our community’s expense.”

Cainion called out Wheeler-Bowman for receiving contributions from developers. The incumbent has raised about nearly $46,000, about one fourth of which has come from the development or real estate community. Wheeler-Bowman denied her contributions are problematic.

“I can’t be bought,” she said. “While I appreciate their donations, they see me as a leader, a person they want to support.”

Wheeler-Bowman said she wants to represent the black community, and the whole city. She has widespread support from her colleagues, including from council members Charlie Gerdes, Brandi Gabbard, Darden Rice, Amy Foster, Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari, who is also up for re-election. She has also received endorsements or contributions from Mayor Rick Kriseman, the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, the St. Petersburg Assocation of Fire Fighters, the National Organization for Women and the Sierra Club.

Cainion has raised nearly $30,000, primarily through small donations, including several as little as $1. Much of her money has come from donors who live out of state.

She said she has drawn support from all over because people are excited about a reparations campaign.

“We want reparations to happen in the city of St. Pete because it’s a blueprint of what can happen in all these other places,” she said.

Cainion’s endorsements include Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela, former District 5 candidate Anne Hirsch, St. Louis Alderman Jesse Todd and New York State Assemblyman Charles Baron.